Grounds pro Ken Hughes credits his self-motivated employees for keeping their Connecticut city’s parks first rate

Norwalk Parks Department at a Glance

Location: Norwalk, Conn., on Long Island Sound, pop. 86,000
Superintendent of Parks: Ken Hughes
Direct Report: Mike Mocciae, parks and recreation director
Maintained Acreage: 1,400
Responsibilities: 40 playground structures, three cemeteries, 30 skinned athletic fields, two historic estates, dog park, splash pad, launch ramps, boating docks, fishing pier, community gardens (300 plots), other parks, outbuildings
Services: Capital projects, mowing, trimming, fertilization, irrigation (bathroom buildings and water fountains), weed control, playground and field maintenance, ball field grooming and lining, leaf cleanup, beach grooming, tree and fencing maintenance, trash pickup, walkway snow removal, and other general landscape maintenance
Employees: 17 full-time, additional 14 seasonally

The city of Norwalk is an amenities-rich community of 85,000 people. By almost any standard and with a media household income of $72,752 and median house or condo value of $446,700 (2009 data), it’s a good place to live and raise a family.

Situated on the Norwalk River as it enters Long Island Sound, the city’s residents greatly appreciate outdoor activities and treasure the city’s parks and many well-maintained public spaces. The job of maintaining this incredibly diverse variety of public sites falls to a relatively small but experienced team led by landscape and grounds pro Ken Hughes.

“When I was 12 years old, my parents gave me a choice for a birthday gift: a go-kart or a garden tractor,” says Hughes. “I chose the Wheel Horse. From that day on, I was involved in the green industry. I was the neighborhood kid riding up and down the street mowing lawns.”

That birthday occurred 28 years ago and he still has and treasures that same Wheel Horse. Since then, Hughes earned a B.S. in landscape design at the University of Connecticut (1993) and subsequently founded his own landscape company. For 26 years he and his employees did it all – landscape maintenance, design/build, installations.

For the past two years he has supervised daily operations of the Norwalk Parks Department.

As a company owner and now as a grounds supervisor, he continues learning and staying abreast of industry best practices as a state certified pesticide supervisor, a certified arborist and a certified playground inspector. He remains an active member of several industry organizations.

That’s the kind of commitment required to manage any sizable operation, be it a landscape company and, especially, the parks department in a medium-sized city, such as Norwalk, where public expectations are very high.

“I was hired in August of 2009 as the superintendent of parks for the city of Norwalk. I work under the supervision of Mike Mocciae, Norwalk’s director of recreation and parks,” says Hughes. “The parks department currently has 17 full-time employees and we hire 14 part-time employees during our peak season.”

Hughes’ duties as superintendent include the overall management, supervision and scheduling of the parks department. This includes daily work scheduling in order of use priorities, capital project management, organizing equipment repair and maintenance, as well as employee payroll and building maintenance.

So, how big of a challenge do Hughes and his team face in managing the city’s parks department?

The Parks Department for the city of Norwalk maintains more than 1,400 acres of outdoor property, including 18 schools, two beaches, two artificial turf fields, more than 40 playground structures, three cemeteries, 30 skinned athletic fields, two historic estates, a dog park, splash pad, launch ramps, boating docks, a fishing pier, community gardens (300 plots), and numerous other parks and outbuildings.

Biggest challenges

“The biggest challenge we face in the parks department is the diversity of work we are entrusted to accomplish,” says Hughes. “One day our employees could be lining a ball field and the next day we are moving an 18-ton art sculpture across town to our local beach. Having this diversity means I need to recognize the different strengths and weaknesses of the individual employees and assign the work orders accordingly.”

There are more specific challenges, of course. For example, the parks department is now restoring a 200-plus-year-old farmhouse located on Fodor Farm, a park site that contains more than 300 community gardens. Department personnel are accomplishing this as they continue with their regular maintenance duties.

“Within these properties, we’re responsible for the capital projects, mowing, trimming, fertilization, irrigation (bathroom buildings and water fountains), weed control, playground and field maintenance, ball field grooming and lining, leaf cleanup, beach grooming, tree and fencing maintenance, trash pickup, walkway snow removal and other general landscape maintenance,” says Hughes.

Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, sport coat and blue shirt, poses with the park employees at the department’s annual Christmas Party.

“The second biggest overall challenge, as I am sure is the same for all municipal departments, is that of funding. We’re charged to find creative ways to do more with less. Being constantly in the public eye, we don’t have room for waste, and this is something I do not tolerate,” he says.

Stretching taxpayers’ dollars

The park department’s plans call for the replacement all the metal halide light fixtures with a more energy-efficient fluorescent lighting in the parks garage. By installing programmable thermostats on the garage’s 250K BTU gas heaters, the department saved several thousand dollars in energy costs. The next project is the installation of waste oil heaters that will save even more money.

“I’m constantly looking for more efficient ways to complete our everyday tasks. I don’t think there’s a task we have not tweaked since my hire in 2009. Another example is we now mulch more than 90 percent of our leaves on all of our park sites as opposed to hauling them away,” says Hughes.

A parks department, in any municipality, deals with what Hughes refers to as front-line, quality-of-life issues. Residents like to see their taxpayer-funded properties maintained to the same level of care and detail as they maintain their own properties.

Norwalk Parks employee Nate Vass, clearing the sidewalk at Norwalk City Hall during one of the many winter storms of 2011.

Hughes says it’s his team’s daily goal to not only have properties that are visually pleasing, but that are also safe for all residents to use, and to complete these goals in a manner that’s safe and efficient for park employees. This is especially important with our playgrounds and sport fields, he says.

“The work we accomplish is high-visibility, and I instill that in the minds of our employees on a daily basis,” says Hughes.

The parks department is a union department, guided by a municipal labor contract.

“We’re able to do a multitude of projects within the department being we have an on-staff carpenter, plumber, heavy equipment operators, maintenance trades workers and a fleet mechanic,” Hughes says.

“When I first arrived at the parks department, I soon realized we had what seemed like monumental tasks for a department of our size. This meant I needed to make a lot of our daily tasks self-sufficient, with the help of our employees,” he continues.

“We currently have a tool cage for small equipment, where the employees are responsible for tagging in and out their daily equipment, We have schedule sheets for repeated tasks (mowing, trimming, ball field maintenance, garbage pickup) where the employees are responsible for scheduling their own work and filling out the sheets daily, noting what was completed.”

He says this system lets everyone in the department know at a glance what was done, and more importantly what needs to be done. The department also has a self-reporting system for broken tools and equipment.

“In my opinion, a properly managed department or company should run just as efficient when the supervisor is not there. That’s the point we are at now, and I owe it to the dedicated employees we have in the parks department,” says Hughes sincerely.

His team counts on a very diverse fleet of equipment to complete its tasks. Units range from four Toro 580 16-foot-wide area mowers to a road grader the department uses for field grading, to numerous other tractors and powered hand tools.

“My management style is that of mutual respect. I don’t manage through fear or intimidation, but rather through a translation of what my job is to my employees, as well as an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of those employees,” explains Hughes.

“I am still amazed at the work we are able to accomplish on a daily basis, and that’s a true testament to the dedication and work ethic of the parks employees.

Being responsible for the maintenance of 1400 acres, many of them large areas of turfgrass, requires the use of some heavy-duty mowers. Here, parks employee Juan DeJesus operates one of the department’s Toro 580s on 35-acre Veterans Park.

“The recreation side of our department schedules park usage, and I am in daily contact with not only my supervisor, but also with our recreation director, Gerald Anastasia, as well as recreation administrators Patty Potrykus and AnneMarie Parmalee.

“The biggest rewards to me are seeing our employees enjoy what they’re doing and to see the residents enjoying our parks. In my opinion, when employees enjoy their jobs, they become better employees, and that’s reflected in their work,” says Hughes.

“I try to have our employees make many of their own decisions and even settle their own differences. I’m not here to babysit, but rather to make sure our work gets done in the most efficient and correct way possible. We spend a lot of time on building employee morale, which in turn is reflected in our work ethic. I would like to believe our employees like coming to work, because once they don’t, it becomes just a job.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 27 years. Contact him at